Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Making a living in SMA

As I mentioned over the weekend, most of this week I will be interviewing younger expats in SMA. Most of these folks are 28-50 year olds who have been here for five or more years and are attempting to make their lives work and live full time in Mexico. What does that mean? From what I can gather, betting your financial future on a niche economy that can support a clever expat and allow him or her to live quite well, and in a manner that will secure one's future.

There are many ways to do this. I've met young families where the father works full- time in the U.S. while mom and kids live full-time in Mexico and get regular (every 6-8 weeks) visits from dad (and from what I can tell, the marriages in these cases appear to be functioning). I've met young entrepreneurs who moved their seasonal businesses to Mexico to take advantage of the tourist industry and cache of San Miguel's international reputation. I've also met children of expats who grew up here and either are literally Mexican citizens or their hearts are Mexican.

In each of these chases, these young expats believe that SMA is the best place they can live their lives and raise their families. They want to give their kids a meaningful life that is based on relationships and a community rather than materialism and competition. They also are walking away from a U.S. culture that they believe has become too focused on doing (commuting, working, and living a life based on being status-conscious) rather than finding your purpose in life and then simply enjoying it.

Although I have not been investigating expat incomes, it's obvious who is struggling and who is doing well.

For the record, it is possible to make a living, and probably a pretty good one, living in SMA. For instance, Carly Cross runs Mex*Art, a summer institute for teens to study art, dance and Spanish in a highly supervised summer camp. Carly owns a great property not too far from the jardín. Her house sits in the midst of a large walled property surrounded by seven charming casitas that house campers in June and July. During the off season, she rents the casitas as efficiency apartments to SMA visitors. In this case, Ms. Cross took her U.S.-based job as a coordinator of a fine arts camp in the U.S. directly to Mexico and added the value of learning a foreign language in the process. It's a combination that has obviously worked well. As an aside, I'm not a big fan of sleep-over camps, but I was sufficiently impressed with Carly and her program that I would consider sending my own children to her camp.

Others are not necessarily doing so well. Those who seem to struggle financially are those who do not run businesses here. Freelancers, writers, and occasional workers are more likley to have financial troubles, although no one is starving. They are living more hand to mouth, but all admit that this is preferable to their lives in the U.S. which may have been a bit more stable financially, but not nearly as enjoyable.

Only one aspect of the young families' lives gave me pause. I've met several young adults who grew up here with their expat parents, away from extended family and friends in the U.S. If these kids decided to spend their entire lives here, things seem to go well. They are well connected in their SMA community and grow up with expectations of making their lives here. For the kids who grew up here, but then for whatever reason went back to the U.S. (for high school, college, etc.), they are more likely to feel alienated from the U.S. and Mexico. In other words, they feel more connected in SMA than in the U.S., but they do not have the benefit of extended family support, especially when their parents die and they're here alone.

This is probably no different than when families live apart in the U.S.--how different can it be if your family lives in Maine and you grow up in New Mexico? Distance is distance, but international travel does complicate this distance a bit. I've met many people who tell me that their families are not particularly interested to visit San Miguel, and there are jokes from recent arrivals that they simply refuse to tell their families about certain aspects of life in Mexico (like the fact that there isn't enough water to flush toilet paper down the toilet and you have to dispose of your toilet tissue in small waste baskets next to the toilet) because they're afraid that will deter them from coming to visit.

Expats as a group, however, seem more likely to go it alone successfully than many people I've met in the U.S. The fact that they are making sacrifices for what I would consider a fairly noble purpose--to have a more meaningful life--is admirable. These young expats add another layer of complexity to this community, and will no double re-shape what the SMA expat community looks like in the future.


Kimberly Gilsdorf said...

Dear Deb,

I found your blog while looking for information about living in Leon (GTO), and really liked what you had to say about expatriation and how to do it well... I'm an American by birth, but have lived most recently in Kenya and Honduras, and am looking forward to this next segment in Leon.

I am what you would call a "young expat" (single, 20-40, working in Mexico) and since you've done a bit of research on us, I was just curious about what you'd found out in GTO? Do you find a lot of young expats working there? I would love to meet other people my age working and living in the area, but as you say in some of your posts, am not interested in finding an American enclave. I speak Spanish pretty well and really enjoy the challenge of trying to assimilate, in part, to whatever culture I may be residing in.

I may be coming to San Miguel de Allende next weekend and if you are around and have time, I'd love to talk to you in person. I wasn't sure if you are currently still in Mexico -- but even if not, you can contact me via email at And thanks for any input/guidance you might have about moving to Leon and meeting other similarly minded folks!


Kimberly Gilsdorf

Deb said...

Hi Kim,

Thanks for writing. Unfortunately, I'm not in Mexico this summer. I think you'll find a lot of wonderful like-minded folks in SMA, and I'm sorry I won't be there to meet you.

all the best,